In some of his general audiences this past April, Pope Francis addressed gender roles. On April 15, the Pope intimated that men and women have been created with difference, and this difference transcends our physical bodies and permeates the roles each gender plays. Drawing from St. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the Pope said that together a man and a woman image God, and they necessarily need difference to do so.
Unfortunately, the idea that men and women image God not only as individuals but also together in their union is not palatable to our current, secular belief system. Starting with the birth control pill and ending with gender reassignment surgery, modern society has tried everything it can to destroy differences between the sexes. It’s as if secular thinkers have applied the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision beyond race to also gender: women cannot be equal to men unless they are the same. So now there’s “gender theory,” which asserts that the differences we perceive between the sexes are socially constructed; women act like women because societal forces encourage them to behave a certain way. If only we would remove those pressures, men and women would be the same, thus making the genders equal.
The Pope called gender theory “an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.” He continued, “Yes, we risk taking a step backwards. The removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution.”
Contrary to the current secular mindset, we cannot negate our gender. Catholic thinkers such as St. Edith Stein (more on her later) have rightly pointed out that our gender goes beyond our physical stature and genitalia; our identity as a man or woman also has a spiritual significance. Though the fact is not often brought to light, modern science has demonstrated that the structure of the female brain differs from that of the male. Women literally think differently than men do. So if created gender differences exist, it follows that men and women have different roles to play in creation.
However, this does not mean that a man’s sphere consists of public life while a woman’s sphere is relegated to the home. While those particular gender roles may have been set in stone for millennia, it’s clear that Pope Francis sees them as cultural and not part of our faith. In his general audience on April 29, Pope Francis defended some of the feminist impulses that began in the 1960s: “Many believe that the changes that have occurred in these last decades [i.e. the decline of marriage and the family] were put in motion by the emancipation of women,” he said. “But even this argument is invalid, it’s false, it isn’t true! It is a form of male chauvinism, which always seeks to dominate women.” Later in the audience, the Pope lamented the male-female pay gap, calling it “an absolute disgrace.”
Because work outside of being a homemaker is a valid calling for women and gender differences exist, how should women consider their unique gender role in the capacity of what they do to earn income?
The American work world today is still not fully hospitable to women. Even though it’s now 2015 – more than half a century after Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” and Second Wave feminism was born – women are clearly not equal to men in the workplace. While there are a few areas in which women command higher salaries than men (most notably in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields), the work world is in many ways an old boys’ club.
On average, women are compensated 12 percent less than their male counterparts are. Only about one in 20 Fortune 1000 CEOs is a woman. Women are severely underrepresented on corporate boards, even though studies have shown that companies with more females on their boards perform better. For every woman in a senior leadership position, there are more than four men. We’ve never had a female American president.
It’s widely argued that women take home smaller paychecks than men because they do not negotiate their starting wage and that they do not ask for subsequent raises as often (or at all) as men do. Yet when women do ask for raises, it is much more likely to reflect poorly on them. One 2014 study found that during annual reviews, 88 percent of women received negative criticism while 59 percent of men did. Moreover, the criticism the men received was constructive in nature while the women’s criticism was not very helpful. In office meetings, women are less likely to verbally contribute, and when they do speak up, their ideas are taken less seriously than those of men. And the preponderance of evidence shows that it does not work for women to navigate this situation by acting like men. When women deny their gender and act masculine in the workplace, they end up alienating everyone – men and women alike.
Pope Francis’s general address on April 15 started up a conversation about how gender roles should work in the public sphere. The Pope elevated the role of women, saying that society needs to recognize and value the “feminine genius.” Theology of the Body experts might recognize this term; TOB expert Katrina Zeno wrote a book, “The Feminine Genius,” devoted to the subject.
Many people believe that the thought of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, aka Edith Stein, strongly influenced St. Pope John Paul II’s conception of the feminine genius. In her writings, Stein argues that all human beings have three vocations as outlined in the first chapters of Genesis: to image God, to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it. For Stein, women and men were different not so much in that they were called to all three; the difference lie in which vocation was emphasized for each gender. For men, their first calling is to subdue the earth; their second calling was as parent. For women, these orders are reversed so that being a mother is a woman’s primary calling.
Though Stein was never a mother herself, she stressed the concept of “spiritual motherhood,” something that all women are called to. Spiritual motherhood, a large part of the feminine genius, happens when women nurture the personal growth of other people. Women help others reach their potentials and are less attuned to their own narrow interests.
While this calling of sacrifice and self-negation seems like the lesser of the two gender callings (and it certainly is in the eyes of the world), it fits in with many other Christian paradoxes, e.g. the last will be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, whoever wishes to save his life must lose it, etc. What seems to the world as weakness is actually something that is extremely spiritually strong. That is why Paul can say in 1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Certainly not every Christian woman will be a mother, but every Christian woman can “bear children” by adhering to her gender role of nurturing others.
That same gender role can be brought to the workplace. Women can act as mentors, helping others improve their job performance. Women can lend their natural proclivities to look at situations holistically and consider people and emotions. Women can foster collaboration and fruitful discussion, cutting to the quick of the competitive, individualistic nature that drives the business world designed by men. While a woman who embraces her feminine role at work might be taking a risk (not playing by the “rules” could close her off from some financial success), she will help transform the workplace from within into something that better serves people created in God’s image.
And to Stein, the feminine gender role was not entirely about self-negation. She taught that by helping others experience wholeness, a woman becomes whole herself. She didn’t view the role of “helpmate” as something separate from the development of a woman’s own completeness.
Finally, Stein offered practical advice to working women, whom she acknowledged as people who were quite busy. She suggested that the “first hour of your morning belongs to God” through prayer, Bible study or attending Mass. While it seems paradoxical that someone who is busy should take on another commitment, Stein argued that being spiritually filled up would help a woman better attend to the needs of her children and those at her workplace. “Tackle the day’s work that [God] charges you with, and he will give you the power to accomplish it,” she said. Given a woman’s role to nurture others, it makes sense that she would have to be full of God’s grace before she could pour herself out.
How is your calling as a woman expressed through the work you do outside your home? Are there other women in your workplace who model “spiritual motherhood,” and what can you learn from them? How do they make your work environment a better place?
About the author: Holly Hosler is a mother and a health care marketing copywriter. Reintroduced to Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross while researching for this post, she recalls that seeing the “Edith Stein” play in 1994 was one of the many foundational events that would culminate in her becoming Catholic on Easter 2003. Her next baby is due on August 9, St. Teresa Benedicta’s feast day.